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Winter Diary 2010/2011

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Great Spotted Woodpecker feeding
on the ground in the authorís garden

It had not been a bad autumn, but as we left for Gambia on the morning of November 16 we got the first taste of what weather lied in store for us, when our flight was delayed whilst the plane was de-iced. We left Banjul two weeks later when the temperature was a steady 35 degrees centigrade and arrived at Birmingham six hours later to be greeted by snow. The journey back to Lincolnshire across country was horrendous, but we made it eventually. Since then, in common with most of the country, we have witnessed wintry conditions even colder than last year with little respite.


Feeding in Garden

Of course it is very important to feed the birds during this weather and the greater variety of food you can provide, the larger the number of species you will feed. Hordes of Blackbirds, Mistle Thrushes and a few Fieldfares have been enjoying the windfall apples but now most of the berries have been eaten there is little natural food left in our garden. So mealworms, fat-balls, fine seeds and coarse grains, sunflowers, niger seed, peanuts and kitchen scraps have all been made available. I noticed the fat-balls were frozen hard and not being eaten, so I crushed them under foot and sprinkled them on the bird table where they were immediately devoured by a range of species.

Feeding birds in your garden really is a win-win situation, as regular feeding will soon draw in good numbers of a wide variety of birds and with luck, it might include a few scarcer species. Bramblings, Siskins, Fieldfares and Redwings have been my highlights but I can't compete with my friends Tim and Rose Townsend from Suffolk who threw open their curtains one morning to see a flock of 27 gorgeous Waxwings perched in the only tree in their modest sized garden!

Hard weather can make birds look further a field for food. When still waters are frozen any open water and especially running water is worth checking. The tiny stream that runs down the side of my street hosted a Common Snipe probing in the mud. A close relative of the Snipe is the Woodcock and I have seen two in the village recently; one in the churchyard.


Waxwing

Waxwings really have been the stars of this winter with quite sizeable flocks making the most of the bountiful berry harvest I talked about in the autumn edition of Country Eye. These exotic looking birds from Scandinavia seem to favour housing estates and supermarket car parks where ornamental berry bearing shrubs have been planted.

Waxwing and Redwing
A flock of over 60 birds frequented a new housing estate in my nearest town of Bourne where they joined the Fieldfares, Redwings, blackbirds and Thrushes in stripping the hawthorn hedge of berries. I attach some photographs of these beautiful birds.

Another bird that has visited our shores in much greater than normal numbers are Lapland Buntings - and you can guess where they come from! I saw a flock of 24 at Frampton Marsh where at one point in December the warden counted over 80. Normally half a dozen would be a good count.


Having enjoyed an extended Christmas and New Year break, I gallivanted around the countryside in pursuit of both usual and unusual birds. A regular flock of around one hundred Taiga Bean Geese in the Yare valley, Norfolk also hosted the even scarcer Lesser White Fronted Goose, just one bird feeding with the Beans. I managed to see six different species of goose in the same valley as well as a Hooded Crow, which is more normally found in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as more usual but no less spectacular birds such as Marsh Harrier and Buzzard. Nearby the RSPB reserve of Strumpshaw Fen produced Bittern and Water Rail as well as a host of woodland birds including Goldcrest, Treecreeper, Marsh Tits, Siskins and Redpolls.


Willow Tit

A walk in my local wood produced mixed flocks of Tits including the very similar Marsh and Willow Tits. The photograph taken in that wood shows a Willow Tit, much the rarer of the two in this area and a much declined species in the country generally. Although very difficult to tell apart visually the grey panel on the secondary wing feathers, the thicker neck, whiter cheeks and more subdued plumage are good indicators that it is, indeed a Willow Tit. Fortunately both species have different calls, so one's ears are often the better means of identifying these birds.


Spotted Redshank

An early January trip to the RSPB reserve at Titchwell on the north Norfolk coast produced a Spotted Redshank in a little difficulty! As the photograph shows the unfortunate bird caught a fish in the shallows which became lodged at the base of its bill. After shaking and nodding its head and bill to no avail it eventually waded out in to some deeper water and submerged its head. When it surfaced the fish was gone. Whether it was dislodged in to the water or maybe swallowed I could not tell.

Of course it is not just birds that suffer during prolonged hard weather. The sad sight of half a dozen frogs frozen in to the ice in our wildlife pond really upset my wife. Ideally they should not have been in the pond at all - far better to hibernate under leaves in a wet ditch, but something must have roused them from their torpor, maybe between a thaw and a freeze and they met their end in the ice.

Having been told repeatedly at school (a very long time ago, I know!) that squirrels hibernate in the winter I think I can say with some certainty that the Grey Squirrel does not hibernate here in the UK. Every time I have ventured out, even in deep snow I have seen squirrels scampering about trying to find the food that they secreted away in the autumn.

As I write in January the days are becoming noticeably longer and more of our birds are starting to sing. The Robin is now joined by Mistle Thrushes, Starlings, Dunnocks and even the odd "teacher- teacher" spring call of the Great Tit. Rooks are adding sticks to last years nests but as yet, there is no sign of snowdrops or green shoots from any plants. It remains to be seen how much wintry weather lies ahead but whatever comes we can rejoice that spring is not too far away.

 



Ian Misselbrook
January 2011

 

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